Top Five Revelation Commentaries

Introduction.  Revelation commentaries can be frustrating to many readers because they do not always answer the questions people have about the final book of the New Testament. There are some excellent commentaries on Revelation, but a great many more which are just plain bad. I have commented in the past about reading Revelation as an example of apocalyptic literature which uses metaphors and other imagery to convey some sort of “literal truth.” The problem is that most people are not very good at interpreting metaphors in the context of the first-century Greco-Roman world. A good commentary will help unpack these metaphors, a bad one will twist the metaphor around and make it something unintended by the author.

Presuppositions are a major factor for selecting a commentary on Revelation. If one assumes that the book is about the future return of Jesus, then the imagery in the book takes on a prophetic value. If one assumes that the book is a veiled description of events of the first century (whether the fall of Jerusalem in A. D. 70 or persecution of Christians later in the century), then there is no “future” in the book. It is possible to read the book as a graphic description of the struggle between good and evil at any time in history, so that there is nothing in the book which is specifically predictive. (I have several posts on futurist, preterist, and idealist interpretations of Revelation.) Most recent commentaries reject a single view of the book preferring to blend two views, producing a commentary which grounds Revelation in the first century yet emphasizes the value of the book for every Christian throughout church history even to the second coming of Jesus.

One aspect of Revelation commentaries which might be frustrating is the preoccupation with John’s allusions to the Hebrew Bible or other Second Temple Period literature. This is certainly true for Aune and Beale. Both of these books are rich with potential allusions to other texts, often listing dozens of possibilities. Older commentaries are not as worried over the allusions to older books and some (especially evangelical) commentaries are not interested in parallel material in 1 Enoch or other apocalyptic literature. While I continue to find this sort of work fascinating, it is possible that the “search for allusions” has run out of steam.

David Aune, Revelation (3 Vol.; WBC; Dallas: Word, 1997). At more that 1200 pages, this commentary is the most detailed written in the Word series on any book and sets the standard for Revelation commentaries for years to come. His exegesis of the Greek text is excellent. He places the book in the context of the first century and demonstrates that much of the imagery in Revelation is at home in the apocalyptic writings popular among Jews and Christians at the end of the first century. He offers detailed textual comments and syntactical observations. Aune has an encyclopedic knowledge of Greek and Jewish source which he brings to bear on every line of the book of Revelation. For example, when he interprets the sixth seal in Rev 6, he provides a summary of “ancient prodigies,” or unnatural occurrences in Greek and Roman literature. In the space of two pages, dozens of primary sources are cited. It is possible that some (or, many) of the texts Aune cites are not particularly helpful. For example, in his comments on the angel coming down from heaven with chains to bind Satan in Rev 20:1, he lists 1 Enoch 54:3-5, 2 Apoc. Baruch 56:13, Sib. Or. 2.289, as well as Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4. Since all of these are examples of Jewish apocalyptic literature known in the late first century, they are all legitimate “parallel” material. But then he goes on to list several examples of chaining gods (Apollodorus 1.1.2), the Titans (Hesiod, Theog. 718) and even the chaining of Prometheus (Odyssey 11:293). While it is certain that binding Satan is a common “apocalyptic motif,” whether it is “derived” from Greco-Roman myths is more tenuous. Nevertheless, Aune’s awareness of the literature of the Second Temple Period enriches his commentary greatly.

Greg Beale, Revelation (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000). Beale’s mammoth commentary followed Aune’s and is equal in size and value to scholarship. Beale has written a great deal on “Old Testament in the New” issues, so it is no surprise to find large sections in this commentary devoted to John’s Hebrew Bible sources. His interest is in John’s use of the Hebrew Bible so there is less reference to Greek and Roman sources than in Aune’s commentary. Beale includes a twenty page summary of his view of what constitutes an allusion and his controlling method for deciding what may be an allusion and what is not. He describes his approach to the book as a “redemptive historical form of modified idealism” (48). By this he means that the symbols of the book of Revelation had some specific referent in the first century which will provide some comfort or teaching to Christians throughout history, but will find ultimate fulfillment in the future. In the commentary proper Beale works through the Greek text phrase-by-phrase, commenting on syntactical issues where appropriate. The style of the commentary tends to use a smaller font for textual details, allowing a reader to skip over these elements. Like most readers of the Greek of Revelation, Beale puzzles over some aspects of John’s style, finding in many cases that he employs a Semitic syntax more than Greek. Beale has a number of excursuses devoted to how specific metaphors functioned in Judaism. For example, after his commentary on Rev 9:19, he has a page on serpents and scorpions in Judaism. While a page does not seem like much, there are dozens of references to the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic texts unpacking the metaphor of a scorpion. One criticism: a single 1200+ page volume is unwieldy to use, even with the lighter paper. I would have liked Eerdmans to publish this book in at least two volumes. The spine of my copy has split near the center.

Grant Osborne, Revelation (BECNT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002). It is hard to imagine that an 800+ page commentary should be considered brief, but in comparison to Aune and Beale, Osborne’s commentary more efficient and user-friendly. I find his introductory material very well written and insightful, celebrating what he called the “hermeneutics of humility” (16). Osborne is aware that reading Revelation generates more questions than answers and advises students of Revelation to be humble in their exegesis, willing to not understand everything in the book. He includes about 18 pages on the theology of the book. He includes two pages on Mission in Revelation, a topic which is not among the first things one thinks of when reading Revelation! Osborne’s approach to the book is to combine futurist and idealist readings of the book, with an emphasis on the future. He defines apocalyptic as “the present addressed through parallels with the future” (22). In the commentary proper, Osborne moves phrase-by-phrase through pericopes, commenting on the Greek text with transliterations provided. Greek does appear in the footnotes, where he makes more detailed syntactical observations. After the exegetical section, Osborne offers a “summary and contextualization” section, drawing out theological insights of major sections.

Robert Mounce, The Book of Revelation, Revised Edition (NINTC; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977, 1997). Mounce’s commentary is brief because he does not spend the time searching for John’s sources or worrying over potential parallels. While the commentary is quite aware that John stands on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible and that there is parallel material in other Jewish apocalypses, Mounce wrote his initial version of this commentary prior to the rise of scholarly preoccupation with sources. Mounce reads Revelation as reflecting his own culture, but understands that “the predictions of John…will find their final and complete fulfillment in the last days of history” (45, first ed.). He finds this blending of John’s present and future consistent with the nature of prophecy in the New Testament. In the preface to the revised edition of commentary Mounce states that he still has the same basic approach to the book and he remains a premillennialist, but he has a deeper appreciation for other views of the book. (Another difference between the editions is that the Revised uses the NIV rather that the 1901 ASB). The body of the commentary is based on the English text, with details of Greek grammar relegated to the footnotes. I think that this is a good commentary for the busy pastor or layman who wants a bit more in-depth study without the details of Aune or Beale.

George Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1972). If the measure of a classic commentary is wear and tear, then Ladd’s commentary on Revelation certainly qualifies for me. My copy 1983 reprint is fairly well marked, the spine is broken and pages are falling out. I suppose it is possible that the paperback binding was not designed to last, but I have used this book often over the years. This is a brief, easy to read commentary, but there is a great deal of depth to the book as well. With only 14 pages of introduction, Ladd is focused on the text rather than method. (In his defense, he treats the theology of the book of Revelation in his New Testament Theology.) He blends preterist and futurist methods as a representative of what is now known as ‘historic premillenialism” (see page 261 for his millennial position). Ladd reads the books as applicable to the first century, but also as a prophecy of the return of Jesus in the future. Occasionally he weighs alternate views of the book in the commentary, as he does in treating the measuring of the Temple in Rev 11, for example. The commentary proper is on the English text, only rarely does he deal with Greek directly and always in transliteration. This makes for an easy-reading commentary for the laymen.

Conclusion. There are quite a few quality studies I have left off this list to keep it to “five top commentaries.” I still consult R. H. Charles ICC Commentary, even though it is a rather dated.  I reviewed Gordon Fee’s recent commentary here, and Elaine Pagels book on early Christian apocalyptic, Revelations, here.  I am looking forward to Paige Patterson’s commentary on Revelation due in September in the NAC series. What have I omitted which you have found helpful for your study of this difficult book of the New Testament? What is the “classic” every pastor should have on their shelf?

 

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries

28 thoughts on “Top Five Revelation Commentaries

  1. Indeed, you have covered some fine books, commentaries, and writers here! I also like btw, Austin Farrer’s: The Revelation of St. John Divine, and his earlier work: A Rebirth of Images. As he maintains, the Book cannot be understood save as a whole! Btw, the Intro to the Oxford Revelation Commentary is well worth the book!

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    • I do not have a copy of Austin Farrer, but I have enjoyed other books by him. I will have to seek out a copy to read.

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      • 🙂 Yes, it is somewhat an independent read, but I think well worth it! Farrer was such a profound intellect and thinker, but always stayed close to the Word, though something of a High Churchman, certainly. I have a few good books about this theology and thinking, besides his own. Captured by the Crucified, The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer, Edited by David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson. Also the fine book on Farrer’s theology itself: Light in the Burning-Glass, A Systematic Presentation of Austin Farrer’s Theology, by Robert Boak Slocum. No doubt his friendship with Lewis must have touched here, but like Lewis who warned that imagination should not be understood as a realm of existence separate from the rest of life, but images must “be anchored in experience.” And of course that experience must be pressed by the biblical text itself.

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      • Btw, Farrer was a “preacher” as well as a CoE priest! Almost a lost art today in Anglicanism! Sermons with Catechesis in them, as someone has said! Lord, give us “preachers” and the “kerygma”! 😉

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  2. Phillip, thank you for completing this series. I own Aune’s volumes and I find them frustrating because they are virtually a huge database of parallels. Where Aune is often deficient is in weighing the options and synthesizing all of the material to explain the text.

    I like Ian Boxall’s new commentary on Revelation in the Black’s series – it is just as good as the classic by George Caird in the same series. James Resseguie’s Revelation of John, The: A Narrative Commentary (Baker, 2009) is a commentary I cannot do without because his approach resounds with me as one of the best ways to read the text.

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    • I have not used Boxall, but I am warming to the Black’s series. James Resseguie is a good suggestion, I have been ignoring it for a while now!

      Concerning Aune, the commentary strikes me as the ultimate example of “missing the forest for the trees,” you are correct that there is little interpretation at the end of the day. Still, no one can really write a commentary now without engaging it.

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  3. I have most of these, but my top pick is the two volume work of Robert L Thomas, REVELATION; AN EXEGETICAL COMMENTARY. It is the first off the self. It is more understandable and concise than some of the others, but is a top notch work.

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    • I almost included Thomas since he is the only Classical dispensationalist who has written a substantial commentary on Revelation. He holds to his “literal” guns fairly consistently. I omitted it because I knew you would suggest it!

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      • Absolutely, Thomas is good and a classic dispensationalism. There really isn’t another full scale commentary on Revelation from a disp available. Walvoord is the closest one I can think of, but that book is fifty years old now!

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      • Thanks, yes I would agree! I have Walvoord’s old Moody Press hardback. And I was given by a Open PB friend, Thomas’s book. I am reading it now. I tend toward the PD myself, but indeed the Salvation History and Covenant/covenants come first from “Israel”! (Rom. 9: 4-5 ; 15: 8-9 ; Eph. 2: 12, etc.) Now as we see the ‘Times of the Gentiles’ & their apostasy coming to an end (Lk. 21:24), Modern Israel is coming into their central place once again! (Acts 1:6)

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      • I will die a Historic Premillennialist, and biblical “Israel” settles that for me! How I miss living in Modern Israel! (late 90’s) That was a “formation” for me! (They taught me more than I taught them!) But I also fought in Gulf War 1, that was an eye-opener. We RMC’s (Royal Marines) had some deep penetration missions! God Bless the Land & People of Israel!

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  4. [Greets, RA. Here’s an item the web revealed. Any comments?]

    Just wondering if Dr. Patterson and other dispy SBC leaders have ever Googled “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” “Pretrib Rapture Pride,” and “Pretrib Rapture Stealth.” The last item has enough passages from Acts etc. to blow the pretrib rapture all the way back to 1830 and to the doorstep in Scotland of Margaret Macdonald!

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    • Hi Irv. I am sure anyone who write from a dispensationalist perspective is well aware of the Margaret MacDonald canard. There are better ways to argue against pre-trib rapture than that.

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  5. Revelation of Saint John, The (Black’s New Testament Commentary) by Ian Boxall and Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Bible & Liberation) by Wes Howard-Brook.

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  6. Hi, as we all know “the unveiling” has produced much discussion as to its interpretation. I suspect that my own study of revelation has only scratched the surface. Depending on your view something below may be worth a look.

    Futurist: Johnson in rebc and Hamilton in ptw series.
    Preterist: Beckwith, Gentry forthcoming, Homer Hailey and Doug Kelly.
    Idealist: Smalley, Brighton from concordia and irenic Denis Johnson.
    Historist: Oral Collins and Nigel Lee .

    Seven Churches: Colin Hemer and Marcus Loane.

    Koesters new work in AB will no doubt be noticed.

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    • Thanks for your careful reading and additional comments throughout the series! You have some great additions, some I would have included if I had not limited myself to five choices.

      You are right to separate commentaries on Revelation by their view of the future, although there are few preterists who would read a futurist commentary, or few futurists who would read an idealist, etc. People tend to stay locked into their presuppositions on Revelation.

      I am surprised there *are* historicist commentaries – when were these published?

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  7. Hi

    Regarding Historicism you are probably aware of the older works by Bishop Elliott , Grattan Guinness and Basil Atkinson. The work by Oral Edmond Collins was published by Wipf & Stock in 2007 and showing on Amazon. Frances Nigel Lee commentary is called John’s Revelation Unvailed and can be seen on amazon.com. See also Historicism Research Foundation. Today this view is not widly held although some aspects of this fall into the eclectic interpretation of this book. Note for example Leon Morris.

    best regards

    Stephen

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  8. Craig Koester’s AB Revelation has come and gone in hard cover. The TPB replaced it after only a year. The commentary is a terrific corolation of his earlier book plus his Great Lecture Series on Revelation (which is terrific). Koester’s main approach is discussing the imagery as “word pictures” and
    he sets everything very clearly in its late first century setting. He writes very readable prose and the book is always engaging. I can’t imagine better. Different, of course, but not better. Definitely make room on your list for this one.

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    • I have not used Koester’s AB volume (released in September 2014 in HB, $125), mostly because it is very expensive! I probably ought to have picked up a copy at SBL. I do have a shorter book Koester wrote on Revelation for Eerdmans, but it is far from a full commentary.

      I of course have Josephine Massyngberde Ford’s earlier commentary, but like many of the original AB volumes, it has odd moments and leaves me unsatisfied since it is all too brief.

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      • I’ve taken to pre-ordering certain books like Koester’s. You get a better discount and you don’t miss out. Yale has all but ruined the series. They release expensive HB within a brief window then delete them in favor of cheaper crappy laser print TPBs (Koester’s is $65 US). I picked up the new volumes on Joshua and Judges as well, because they only increase in price. I’m sorry the Word commentaries are so poorly printed against the cost. Do they hold up on the shelf, or do they yellow and wither on the newsprint they’re printed on?

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      • Probably a good idea for that one. I usually can get a decent discount as a professor, and that volume is a good investment. BTW, my copy of Dunn arrived today, so my Christmas reading is set…!

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  9. Please excuse my lack of proper English in the above post. “Corolation” is obviously not a word. What I meant to say in my untutored way is that Koester’s commentary combines the scholarship of his earlier (and excellent) volume with the structure of his Lecture Series (Great Courses).

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  10. Great list, thank you. Of further value, from a Reformed perspective, is Simon Kistemaker’s volume in the Hendriksen-Kistemaker set.

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  11. George Beasly-Murray’s little commentary in the New Century Bible is outstanding in clarity. Can’t imagine recommending anything else in the NCB series, but this one is a winner. Too bad it’s unlikely ever to be back in print.

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